Unconditional Peoples’ Sovereignty and Plebiscites as a Model for Democratic Development
An Article in the Compendium of Market-Based Social-Ecological Economics
Key issues in view of the neoliberal crisis:
How can we guarantee employment and fair income?
How can we protect the environment effectively?
How should we shape the economic globalization?
What should the economic sciences contribute?
What must be the vital tasks of economic policy?
How can we legitimize economic policy democratically?
Table of Contents
For peoples and states, the introduction of a democratic constitution is undoubtedly the greatest historical achievement. But this legal act is not in itself sufficient, because democratic rights, once formulated, must be enforced and defended from the outset against internal resistance and selfishness. Citizens can only win this struggle if they are aware of their right to participate in the democratic process and demand it vigorously. Awareness of individual political responsibility and sovereignty, however, is a quality that develops only more or less slowly, depending on the history of a people.
The desirable long-term goal of democratic development should be the thriving interaction of direct (plebiscitary) and indirect (representative) democratic participation. Only in this interaction can a people effectively exercise, protect and preserve its sovereignty.
Germany, too, is still a long way from achieving this long-term goal, above all because the political representatives claim that the citizens are overburdened to make future-oriented choices in the supposedly complex political environment – and the majority of citizens in fact agree with them.
The motive for this article is to create an awareness that the claim described above accommodates selfish interests and fosters oligarchic structures and that it slows down the urgently needed democratic maturation process.
2. On the History and Constitution of Democracy
Democracy is rule by the people for the people. What sounds so simple and convincing, however, only emerges from a lengthy process of liberating a people from authoritarian claims of individuals or groups and their ideological justification. This includes the liberation from clericalism of religious organizations.
Thus two independent spheres emerge in modern democracy: a state policy sphere and a private ideological-religious one, which, in order to coexist, must grant each other autonomy, just as the different private spheres must respect each other’s self-determination. All ideologies and beliefs and their practical exercises are thus assigned to the private sphere.
In order to coexist, a strict separation of the institutions of the state from those of the private communities is mandatory, and finally, based on practical reason, the secularization of the state policy sphere and its decisions is also absolutely vital.
The fact that the process of secularization has not yet been completed is demonstrated by the debates currently taking place in Western democracies about, for example, the rights of non-marital partnerships, euthanasia and sexual ethics.
In the course of its liberation process, a people becomes a responsible constitutive people, a sovereign of the state – hence the term peoples’ sovereignty. Meaning that the people become responsible citizens who know how to distinguish between their political and private degrees of freedom. »All state power emanates from the people«, is therefore stated in Article 20 of the German Constitution (Grundgesetz) of 1949. The constitution which the people decide to choose usually marks the beginning of the institutionalization of a democracy. A genuine democratic constitution is always an expression of sovereignty, freedom and the rule of law. Because only those who are free to make new choices at any time are sovereign. That is to say, sovereignty is indivisible! In order to be binding and unassailable, a constitution must basically relate to a geographically defined state (nation state) and the people living in that state. It is therefore reasonable to say that the terms nation-state and constitutive people are synonyms.
The purpose of a constitution is also to clearly state those values that are non-negotiable and are beyond the scope of democratic discourse. This includes, above all, the respective stage of development of basic and human rights, increasingly also the rights of the remaining nature, and in the future, so is to be hoped, also the special basic economic rights. But the peoples’ sovereignty itself must also be protected from restrictions. Transfers of sovereign powers, for example, to institutions outside the state should in principle only be permitted for a limited period of time and for revocation. And even the federal (subsidiary) structure of a state can be anchored in the constitution of a state or its amendment protected by high plebiscitary or representative hurdles, as is the case in the German Constitution.
2.1 The Unconditional Protection of Peoples’ Sovereignty
Great caution is required when transferring sovereign powers to supranational institutions. The current negative example is the bureaucracy of the European Union (EU), which in the course of an unbelievable self-empowerment is usurping more and more national powers in order to patronise the continent with central directives. With its self-empowerment the EU bureaucracy destroys the democratic rights of the people of Europe, for the principle applies that the combination of supranational sovereignty and democracy is a contradiction in itself. In other words, no supranational constitutive people can be formed from historically differently developed national peoples and claim sovereignty. Each and every evolved national peoples’ sovereignty is by its nature indivisible and must therefore not be relativized and devalued by a dubious superordinate sovereignty.
Supranationality is only conceivable as the result of a very long process of integration of previously independent nations into a new nation-state. Concerning Europe, the attempts of integration are unlikely to succeed in the foreseeable future due to the inhomogeneity of the continent, or rather the diversity that is actually advantageous and worth preserving. These attempts which aim to establish a European federal superstate are actually forbidden, not least because they detract from the great opportunity that should be pursued: the creation of a European confederation of sovereign nation states that offers all advantages of size without the downside of centralism and egalitarianism.
The attempt alone to extend national sovereignties supranationally has drastic consequences: Already today, every souvereign nation state within the EU can be overruled by supranational majorities and abruptly lose its sovereign powers. At present these majorities are still produced by the oligarchic bodies of the EU, above all the European Council, not yet by the supranational EU Parliament, but that would not change the centralist overruling power. Since all peoples are equally affected, all peoples’ sovereignties erode over time with supranational votes producing conflict-laden results that come about through respective attempts at mutual national cheating. In this environment it is easy for the central bureaucracy to influence the votes by fomenting prejudices and tendentious announcements, and to finally devalue them politically to assume more and more power themselves.
In this context, the national governments of the EU and the EU bureaucracy are endeavouring to give themselves a supranational-democratic touch in view of massive accusations of centralism. With the so-called European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) they have created an initially non-binding instrument for Europe-wide referendums, supplemented by the cautiously extended powers of the EU Parliament as the corresponding parliamentary counterpart. As stated in the above paragraph, however, supranational democratization is an absurdity. And regardless of whether the powers of the ECI and the EU Parliament are extended and perfected, or whether the national governments themselves continue to claim supranational sovereignty in the European Council, the concentration of power at the EU level will continue to further increase due to systemic reasons.
2.2 The Illusion of a Federal Superstate of Inhomogeneous Nations
The peaceful unification of inhomogeneous peoples and nation states into a supranational federal state with a common national consciousness is an illusion. The fact that the national governments of the EU are under this illusion and have taken a decisive step towards realizing their dream with the monetary union (the euro zone) does not bode well. The above-mentioned erosion of national sovereignties, i.e. the de-democratization of the member states of the EU, has enabled the implementation of the euro against the will of the majority of the souvereign people of Europe in the first place. Since then, cutthroat competition in euro prices has been driving its course turning the southern states of the Union into poorhouses. Anyone who had hoped that the devastations would tear the national governments and the EU bureaucracy out of their dreams must no face the fact that the euro project is being kept alive artificially by its protagonists in an opinionated and stubborn manner with so-called euro rescue umbrellas. For additional information I recommend the articles Importance of Nation States in Europe and EU: Federal Superstate or Confederation.
2.3 Switzerland: A Role Model for a European Federal State?
Switzerland has not emerged from inhomogeneous nation states, but at least it seems to have succeeded in uniting inhomogeneous ethnic groups. Can the rest of Europe accordingly learn any lessons from the founding of the Swiss Confederation? A possible answer can be derived from historical developments: It is true that the dominant Alemannic ethnic group has extended its territory in part by warlike conquests, which continues to have an effect in Ticino to this day. But despite these experiences, the non-Alemannic ethnic groups do not share the national consciousness of their European neighbours of the same language, simply because the nation states surrounding Switzerland and their respective national consciousness have historically been formed at a later time. So there’s never been a threat from the Swiss ethnic groups to join the neighbouring states. Thus a specifically Swiss consciousness has been able to develop allowing the country to be enviably independent and neutral within Europe and enjoy a special status. This self-confident, inward-looking view inevitably caused that the linguistically and culturally very different ethnic groups and cantons had to grant each other a maximum of mutual autonomy in order to limit the internal conflicts to a tolerable level. Switzerland is therefore de facto a confederation of largely autonomous cantons with a very selectively empowered federal government.
It is not without reason that the Swiss are suspicious of the centralist development of the European Union because it runs counter to their experience that peoples’ sovereignty and democracy presuppose decentralized (subsidiary) structures and powers. But the Swiss also keep their distance from the EU because they face intercultural misunderstandings and friction among their own ethnic groups on a daily basis and therefore consider supranational-federal integration the greatest stupidity to be assumed. In short, Switzerland is a national exception and does not serve as a blueprint for a centrally governed European federal superstate, but it can serve as a model for decentralized autonomy and direct democracy.
3. On Democratic Decision-Making Processes
To practice democracy in an advantageous way, it is not speed and supposed efficiency that are decisive, but good preparation and the hearing of all arguments. Only if the political debate among citizens is understood as a normal, everyday process can a community protect itself from being influenced by group interests or ideologized majorities. The charm of democracy lies in its vitality, in the fact that it involves all parties concerned, masters changing challenges and further develops its own framework of rules and the sense of justice of its citizens.
A sure indication of the vitality of a democracy is the tension that regularly builds up between »popular sentiment« and »professional law«, leading to the question: Can everything be right (or lawful) that democratic decisions produce?
Even if we considered democracy to be only slightly better than other forms of government, it would be logical for the judicial system to bow to the sovereign’s will: For it is not the current state of a democratic community that is significant for its welfare, but its ability to constantly develop further (which also applies to fundamental rights, as indicated above). The fact that developments do not always progress in a linear fashion is a hallmark of democracy and points to its potential for correcting undesirable developments. Therefore, in the course of the progressing development of a democracy the stability of emerging basic truths increases, especially concerning fundamental rights. But still, no group within a sovereign people can assert lasting claims to truth, not even the representatives of »professional law«. To put it mildly exaggerated: What ever has been established as todays majority opinion can already be rejected by a new majority tomorrow.
A widespread misunderstanding must also be pointed out: It is often claimed that in a democracy the votes of the minority are lost at every ballot, and that democracy would result in the rule of the majority over the minority. This at least does not apply to direct-democratic voting, because both the minority and the majority are recruited from different social groups in every vote. Every citizen can find himself in the minority during one vote and in the majority during another. And as already mentioned, the opinion of the minority can, for different reasons, become very fast a majority opinion.
3.1 The Democratic Mandate of Citizens and Parliamentarians
Article 20, paragraph 2 of the German Constitution states that: »All state power emanates from the people. It is exercised by the people in elections and votes …«. That’s an amazingly clear imperative that puts parliamentary elections and referendums on an equal footing and thus implies their interaction. So far, however, the citizens of Germany have only been granted the right to »elections« of their parliamentary representatives, while they have been denied the exercise of their state power by direct »votes«. Thus, the central question is: How can the constitutional imperative be comprehensively enforced in democratic practice?
If the people, as the sovereign, are to have the last word in all matters which they consider important enough for a direct vote, then the elected representatives in the parliaments »only« have the task of interpreting the will of the people undistortedly and enact it into laws. All other matters can and must be regulated independently by the representatives to the best of their knowledge and belief within the framework of parliamentary legislative processes.
Undoubtedly it means an adjustment for the people’s representatives in a democracy that so far has been purely representative if they suddenly have to accept the sovereign’s direct political will as a binding guideline for part of their legislative work. However, if they do not carry out their constitutional duty, they run the risk of the Constitutional Court blowing the whistle on them. Because every citizen can appeal to the court and demand the practical implementation of a voting result.
Finally, it should be noted again that legislation for a constitutional-democratic country like Germany can only pave the way for the ideal of »rule by the people for the people« in a combination of the sovereign’s direct and indirect political will.
3.2 The Practical Conduct of Referendums
Referendums should be conducted at all levels (local, federal provinces/states and federal). Every citizen and every group of citizens (including political parties) must have the right to initiate referendums, subject to rules and a minimum number of quorums, by formulating questions and explanations to be addressed to the voters. Furthermore, every citizen must have the right to add his or her own views to the explanations so that as many aspects of a question as possible are highlighted. Referendums can by all means be prepared and approved via the Internet, but compliance with the rules must be ensured by a state authority.
The actual votes on all questions accumulated in a given period (approximately every six months) should be held in the form of local ballots, that is, where voters must be present in person. Questions should be repeated in follow-up votes as soon as new findings or new insights have arisen, preferably with a time interval of at least one year between votes. The quorums mentioned above should apply only to the admission of questions, while the results of the actual votes should be binding for the downstream legislative process regardless of the voter turnout.
3.3 An Example of the Vulnerability of Representative Democracy
If direct democracy had been practised in Germany since the end of the second world war, European integration would have taken a different, certainly more future-oriented course: In short, no sovereign powers would have been transferred to institutions outside national control. Above all, the introduction of the monetary union with the euro would have been prevented, including the transfer of monetary powers from the German Federal Bank (Deutsche Bundesbank) to the European Central Bank (ECB). What applies to Germany also applies to all other EU countries, especially those of the euro zone.
With the introduction of the euro, participating countries gave up their monetary sovereignty and parts of their economic autonomy and handed over their fate to cut-throat competition in euro prices, which brought value creation to a standstill in the less productive countries and made them dependent on imports. In order to compensate for the imbalances in trade and national debt, national governments were forced – contrary to the EU Treaties – to give the ECB a free hand to alleviate the imbalances through money creation and redistribution. With the result that deficit countries no longer have any incentives to mitigate risks, because the liability for any budgetary and trade policy recklessness is automatically transferred to surplus countries.
The representatives of national parliaments of the euro countries nod off almost everything that has been oligarchically decided in the back rooms of the EU Council, especially concerning the so-called rescue measures for the euro. This is made possible for lack of plebiscitary correctives and under the pressure of a supposedly federal European integration for which there is no alternative. The formerly representative democracies of the euro countries are now part of democracy-free zone dominated by oligarchies.
3.4 Switzerland: Example of a Typical Referendum
With its referendums, Switzerland repeatedly proves who is the sovereign in the country. The recently successful initiative against »mass immigration« exemplifies the conflict between popular sentiment and professional law, this time with regard to the bilateral agreements concluded with the EU, especially the free movement of persons. For the EU, this is a new lesson in direct democracy. The aggressive reactions of the EU bureaucracy to the result of the vote show how little developed democratic awareness in the EU is and how systematically the direct democratic participation of citizens in the EU is disparaged and suppressed.
On the background to the federal vote: In densely populated Switzerland, the freedom of movement agreed with the EU, and beyond, has already led to noticeable overloading of infrastructure, wage dumping and rising rents. This development in particular has apparently been the decisive factor in the initiative for the dependent urban population who for the most part voted Yes. Ticino, which is flooded every day by Italian border crossers, is particularly hard hit by the burdens, so most inhabitants also voted Yes. The majority of the rural population voted likewise in favour of limiting immigration because, as surveys have shown, they believe that the immigration of cheap labour, combined with dumping competition on the deregulated world markets, would favour industrial production of agricultural products and force more and more family farms out of the market.
The result of the Swiss referendum thus also points to the need for decentralized (subsidiary) structures and the associated economic and migration policy, for which subsidiary responsibility must be assumed. Although the principle of subsidiarity is invoked in the EU Treaties (most recently again in the Lisbon Treaty), it has degenerated into a lip service as a result of the bureaucratic centralism of the EU.
3.5 Evaluation of Expert Judgement and Lobbying
The step from a purely representative to a direct (plebiscitary) democracy requires a fundamental rethink, even a cultural change. For a society must be prepared to make binding political decisions solely on the basis of everyday experiences and worries, i.e. based on the subjective everyday reality of the lives of its citizens. And consequently, a society must also understand it as a democratic normality if a new majority decides the contrary in a subsequent referendum on the same issue.
This is what distinguishes direct democracy: It alone is capable of meandering and detourally approaching the ideal state of society, the topical welfare optimum, which is desired by the majority. Of course, without ever reaching this state satisfactorily. Also because the direct-democratic learning process repeatedly produces new convictions and ideas, and because the quasi-final social truths only emerge over long periods of time.
The Swiss intellectual and journalist Roger Köppel sums up the essence of direct democracy when he exaggerates: »Switzerland puts majority before truth. That is democracy«.
The belief, on the other hand, that there is a contemporary objective truth available to experts in all fields proves to be a dangerous misconception. As mentioned above, Article 20 of the German Constitution specifies that all state power emanates solely from the people and thus excludes any priority of »expertocratic« power – of course without excluding the participation of experts in the direct-democratic learning process. Nevertheless, it should not be difficult to understand the role of experts:
There are countless conflicting expert assessments on every social and political issue, because every expert subjectively judges from the limited viewpoint of his or her profession. Worse still, that experts are exposed to constant danger of being influenced or corrupted by group interests. When group interests come into play, the expert turns into a lobbyist.
Representative democracy, which lacks the constant corrective of the sovereign, is particularly susceptible to lobbying. And once group interests have gained the upper hand, they force the political development in a direction that secures their interests, suppress criticism and prevent learning processes and changes of direction. The euro zone, as shown above, has fallen into this trap.
In addition, it should be noted that assessments and judgements of experts can and should flow into the preparation of referendums like any other information, but their influence must end there. In the legislative-parliamentary process of putting the results of referendums into practice, they may no longer play a role, because all that remains is the sovereign’s will.
3.6 Expertocratic Misguidance Demonstrated by Two Examples
I will demonstrate the contradictions and misdirections that can emanate from expert judgements below using the example of the Swiss initiative against »mass immigration« and the examples of the introduction of the euro and the euro crisis.
Swiss conditions: During the initiative against »mass immigration«, which was adopted by a narrow majority, various interest groups made massive attempts to influence Swiss voters. As usual, the borderline between independent expertise and lobbying was fluid.
First, the most influential Pro expert judgements, which were more scientifically than power-politically justified: Labour market experts: Immigrants must be selected according to labour demand and vocational qualification in order to limit unemployment among the low-skilled and relieve social security funds. Social experts: Immigrants must be selected according to their ability to be integrated in order to avoid cultural conflicts. Ecologists: Immigration must be limited so as not to burden the infrastructure any further and to preserve natural and agricultural land.
Then the most influential Contra expert judgements, the majority of which were based on power politics: Industry experts: The economy depends on immigrants to secure its international competitiveness, including jobs and prosperity. Political/legal experts: If the initiative is adopted, sanctions would be imposed by the EU for violating bilateral agreements, and Switzerland’s good reputation as an open-minded, liberal country would be damaged. Human rights experts: It is a humanitarian imperative that Switzerland, as a rich country, keeps its borders open. Trade union experts: Immigration secures international competitiveness and thus existing jobs.
But as with every plebiscite, the subjective everyday experiences and worries in the life of citizens was the decisive factor in the Swiss vote against »mass immigration«. In addition, the maxim of sustainable social and ecological welfare has prevailed against the self-interest of powerful capital owners and their apologists, which points to a certain maturity of the voters. Roger Köppel explains the surprising contra arguments of the trade unions with the fact that the employee representatives want to use the uncertainty created by increasing competition on the job market for the stabilization of their dwindling power basis, by staging themselves as rescuers in distress.
EU conditions: The euro crisis already mentioned has its cause in the purely politically justified monetary union introduced against all economic expertise. The opponents of the euro have a hard time because there are no referendums in the nation states to prevent the transfer of sovereignty. The people did not want the euro, but even in the crisis they cannot vote it out. That is the fundamental democratic difference to Switzerland.
First the most influential Contra expert judgements, which are more scientifically objective than power-politically justified and thus in line with the Swiss pro-arguments: Critical economists: Competition in euro prices drives companies in less productive countries out of their markets, creates unemployment and poverty, forces the countries to budget over-indebtedness, provokes (non-contractual) rescue measures, leads to cross-country redistribution and abolishes national liability. Critical sociologists: The economic decline in the countries affected by the euro crisis forces young people to emigrate, spreads lack of social prospects, feeds outdated resentment and divides Europe.
Then the most influential Pro expert judgments, the majority of which are based on power politics and are in line with the Swiss Contra-arguments: EU oligarchs: The monetary union completes the single market and is the logical step towards the planned EU economic government and the European federal state. German politicians, mainstream economists and industrialists: The euro secures our exports to the euro countries and creates jobs and prosperity; the euro rescue measures are an expression of future-oriented European solidarity. Representatives of the crisis countries: The monetary union guarantees us favourable credit conditions (cheap money), which will bring us back on the growth path, provided that the austerity measures enforced by the EU to reduce our national debt are stretched in such a way that they do not prevent growth.
The pro-arguments are the explanation for the fact that the surplus and deficit countries of the euro zone have become fatally interdependent as a result of the euro bailout measures. This interdependence is constantly intensifying and making it increasingly unlikely that the crisis will be overcome. Only when the insight prevailes that the costs of the continued crisis are greater than a reversal from the monetary impasse, can hope emerge to transform Europe into a sustainable federation of sovereign and direct-democratic nation-states.
4. Summarized View
An institutionalized democratic culture of conflict, which is practised subsidiarily across all levels of a community, as in Switzerland, ideally forms the centre of political life. On the basis of grassroots democratic (plebiscitary) and market-economy principles, a rationally founded capacity for criticism can develop, which is sustained by the freedom to question the respective order with its procedures and rules at any time. The liveliness of direct and regulated engagement of all citizens ultimately creates a locally anchored and globally effective community. Against this background, it is time, as mentioned in the overview, to supplement the representative form of the state power emanating from the people in Germany with appropriate direct citizen participation, especially at the federal level.
Experience also shows that centralist-oligarchic decisions always exhibit authoritarian, selfish and ideological imbalances, that they are difficult to revise and have almost without exception caused damage in the history of mankind. That is why even the slowest and most laborious democratic decision-making is superior to the supposed efficiency of overhasty and selfishly irrefutable oligarchic decisions, mainly because the learning progress and the insight of those who are directly affected by decisions are most significant in the democratic process. The citizens’ political maturity, which is so readily disparaged, is the crucial capital that needs to be increased in order to shape a future worth living.
Click here for the German-language version: Prinzipien der Demokratie.